Leave Us Alone?

“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”, so ends the speech of John Galt, the hero of heroes of Atlas Shrugged.

The above sentiment is echoed by many in the libertarian movement, especially Ayn Rand’s followers. Objectivists single out Altruism as a scapegoat for most, if not all of the problems faced by mankind. I myself believed much of the rhetoric years back, when I came across her works for the first time in my life. I still find much merit in them. Given the fact that Voters have systematically biased beliefs, selfishness is likely to significantly improve the way democracy works.

GMU economist Bryan Caplan puts it well: “Why? If selfish voters misinterpret markets as a method for the rich to exploit the poor, at least the rich will still favor markets. They’ll want what they falsely see as their “pound of flesh.” But if unselfish voters misinterpret markets as a method for the rich to exploit the poor, the rich and poor alike will unite against the imaginary evils of the market. Instead of petty squabbling, we get a consensus for folly.” It should be obvious that it is important to emphasize that altruism is not an unconditional virtue in a world where most people wrongly believe that we are our brother’s keepers and get that notion institutionalized. Self interested actions are generally virtuous, as long as it doesn’t involve taking advantage of others. When Caplan says: “I often wish the people around me were more selfish – or at least better at being selfish. I know how to deal with rational, self-interested actors. They’re really quite charming. If I want them to change their behavior, I offer them a deal. While they might hold out for more, at least they don’t take offense.”, I tend to agree.

However, problems creep in when people go too far in lauding selfishness. Many objectivists argue as if the case for selfishness is strikingly obvious. Now, it is apparent that it is not the case. Out of those circles, virtually no one else thinks so. It might seem simplistic to argue that predation is not selfish. However, if it is not, there should be good arguments to support it. To argue that a person is claiming a contradiction while doing so, or not acting in a manner which is conducive to the survival of man qua man doesn’t get us anywhere.

Second, when an objectivist claims that the intent to help others is not the standard of morality, he is far from proving that altruism is a vice. Very few philosophers meant complete self sacrifice by the term “altruism”. As Scott Ryan writes: “It is hard to find anyone who has ever defended her odd caricature of “altruism”; far more typical is Thomas Nagel’s “rational altruism,” of which he writes as follows: “By altruism I mean not abject self-sacrifice, but merely a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives.”

Ayn Rand claims that traditional morality “establishes a disastrous conflict on the deepest level of man’s being, a lethal dichotomy that tears man apart: it forces him to choose between making himself able to live and making himself worthy of living.” Sadly, she is unaware of the false dichotomy of selfishness and abject self sacrifice she creates. While altruism is not a virtue, selfishness is not an unconditional virtue either.

It is also not at all evident how selfishness can be the moral basis of liberty. In the words of Murray Rothbard: “Whichever moral philosophy we adopt—whether altruism or egoism—we cannot criticize the pursuit of monetary income on the market. If we hold an egoistic social ethic, then obviously we can only applaud the maximization of monetary income, or of a mixture of monetary and other psychic income, on the market. There is no problem here. However, even if we adopt an altruistic ethic, we must applaud maximization of monetary income just as fervently. For market earnings are a social index of one’s services to others, at least in the sense that any services are exchangeable. The greater a man’s income, the greater has been his service to others. Indeed, it should be far easier for the altruist to applaud the maximization of a man’s monetary income than that of his psychic income when this is in conflict with the former goal. Thus, the consistent altruist must condemn the refusal of a man to work at a job paying high wages and his preference for a lower-paying job somewhere else. This man, whatever his reason, is defying the signaled wishes of the consumers, his fellows in society.” Many Objectivist economists like George Riesman claims otherwise, but repeating a worn out claim doesn’t make it true.

While it is true that I wish to live in a world where people are smartly selfish, it doesn’t mean that such a world is for the good of all. The severely handicapped and mentally challenged wouldn’t be taken care of, if altruistic sentiments were totally wiped off from the society. One can argue that I am conjuring up an impossible scenario, but Rand’s philosophy has such an effect on many of her followers. Her protégé Nathaniel Branden talks of Objectivists who feel guilty as they feel a deep desire to help the poor: “Given that we live in society, and given that misfortune or tragedy can strike any one of us, it is clearly in our self-interest to live in a world in which human beings deal with one another in a spirit of mutual benevolence and helpfulness. Could anyone seriously argue that the principle of mutual aid does not have survival value? “Have I ever said that charity and help to others is wrong or undesirable?,” Rand might demand. No, she hasn’t; neither has she spoken very much about their value, beyond declaring that they are not the essence of life—and of course they are not the essence of life. They are a part of life, however, and sometimes an important part of life, and it is misleading to allow for people to believe otherwise.”

Contra Branden, Rand was not consistent or clear in her views on charity. In a Playboy Interview, she opined that she doesn’t consider charity a primary virtue, though she doesn’t consider philanthropists to be evil. Elsewhere, she argued that “a self-made rich man who is anxious to be an altruist by giving away his wealth is seeking unearned admiration from others.” It is not clear what her fanatical followers are to make out from all this. Many have rightly argued that her writings can kill charitable motives in individuals. Steven Horwitz hits the nail on the head: “I think libertarians are making both a substantive and rhetorical mistake that we might come to regret. The desire to be left alone by these bureaucracies is understandable, but the reason is not that trying to help others is wrong or that a world in which we are all left alone is right. I would much rather live in a world where my extended family, friends, and community do not leave me alone in my time of need, but instead feel some sort of commitment to help me. In turn, I hope they would not wish to be left alone, but rather would gladly accept my assistance if the tables were turned.”